I feel a bit silly now having gotten excited about the new Van Morrison album, though they kind of tricked me by releasing the least crazy songs first. “Only a Song” almost seems calculated to (ahem) inoculate you against whatever madness might follow.
Only a song, it’s not set in stone, it’s only a song
It’s only a poem that could change in the long run, it’s only a song
It’s what I said then just to make it rhyme
Could have been on my mind at the time
Putting paper to pen, it’s only a song, it’s only a song
But now that I look at them again, the song titles on Latest Record Project more than hinted that it was going to be a bumpy ride. They include “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished,” “The Long Con,” “Double Agent,” and “Duper’s Delight”; and of course there’s “They Own the Media,” which is tucked away toward the end but in retrospect flashes bright red with warning. And while I certainly agree with the sentiment of “Why Are You on Facebook?”, is it really a subject worthy of the author of “Madame George” or “The Philosopher’s Stone”?
This morning I am trying to listen to the album so I can know of what I speak. It begins pleasantly enough with the self-referential title track and “Where Have All the Rebels Gone,” which is vaguely grumpy (“Need a real live audience to perform/Where have all the rebels gone?/I can’t find anyone”) but jaunty-sounding. “Psychoanalysts Ball” could be the grumblings of any disillusioned ex-patient.
The first sign of real trouble is “No Good Deed,” a Dylanesque piece of restrained vitriol that contains these lyrics:
Gave you a million Euros
Said that it wasn’t enough
How come when you’re still fit and able
You’re too lazy to go out and work
There’s a sense of personal grievance here that, over the course of the rest of the album, seems to metastasize into resentment of everything and everyone. What’s weird is that the music remains mid-tempo, polished, mostly upbeat blues-rock, creating a sense of increasing cognitive dissonance. At times the effect is comical — here is Van singing “My, my, my, my, my, my, my/It was all a big lie” as the band swings away obliviously behind him — but it also goes to some ugly places, as on the previously mentioned “They Own the Media” and “Western Man”:
Western Man has no plan
‘Cause he became complacent
Stopped believing in himself
Let others steal his rewards
While he was dreaming
While he was dreaming
Others were scheming
Doing deals behind his back
Now Western Man is adrift, and under attack
What happened in between?
Now there’s no other bite of the cherry
Unless he’s prepared to fight
Start on a new path to freedom
New path to freedom
The horse has bolted from the stables
Lunatics have taken over the farm
Caretakers have taken over the main house
Plan to start meetings in the forest
In the end what is the difference between eccentric and crazy? Well, an eccentric is harmless. When you start causing pain, they call you insane. On Latest Record Project Van Morrison doesn’t just walk that line, he wanders back and forth across it as if unaware it exists.
This week Ryan Walsh of the L.A. Times wrote an excellent piece on this very subject, which explores the topic with more eloquence and detail than I could manage, at the moment anyway. I may or may not make it through the whole album; at 28 songs and 128 minutes, it is a lot of material, and I note with some trepidation that the full title is Latest Record Project, Volume 1. For the most part, I am just sad that, after a lifetime of striving and seeking, Van has arrived at this alienated, isolated, spiteful place. This blog will be taking a little time to re-evaluate its priorities, and will return when the time is right.